Caveat Spectator: Why Science Can Benefit From Image Fakery
A couple of Mars-related photos have been making the rounds in recent days, both on Tumblr and in the media more generally. Here’s one that seems to purport to being a Martian sunset and compares it to a scene from Star Wars Episode IV:
It’s a fake.
Here’s another, showing the claimed view of in the Martian sky from an unnamed NASA rover, complete with Earth, Venus, and Jupiter as a chain of bright “stars” in its dusky sky:
It’s at once difficult and easy to understand why images like these periodically make the rounds. They’re not immediate impossibilities or intended as humor, unlike recent depictions of the first images radioed back from the Curiosity lander. Most people, after all, can tell that Marvin the Martian popping up in a Curiosity frame is funny (especially when he’s complaining about being usurped by Mohawk Guy). But they know it’s not real.
Sometimes the real deal is presented as real, but the context gets confused. The topmost image in this post is cropped from the one below, which is in fact real:
Taken by the NASA Spirit rover in 2005, it popped up again in the hours after Curiosity’s thrilling descent to the Martian surface last week, held up as the “first image” Curiosity returned to Earth. It was believed by many to be the real deal; Gawker even posted an article titled: “No, This Isn’t The First Picture From The Mars Curiosity Rover”.
Why do fake (or out-of-context) images have legs sufficient to allow them to run circles around the media — and now, around the world in seconds, thanks to the miracle that is the Internet? Two ideas:
1. Sensational images play to our sense of imagination. ”What if” is something that’s essential to the human experience, fueling both the artistry of fiction and eminent solutions to very real, complex problems. The “double sun” depicted on the fictional Tatooine is not all that crazy; in fact, most stars in the universe are probably part of multiple star systems. Who hasn’t wondered what Earth’s skies would look like in such circumstances? A little fantasy sparks the same curiosity that compels us to explore this world — and others.
2. Realistic (but fake) images play to our sense of experience. The real Martian sunset above is amazingly “real”; it could have easily been taken from some high desert on Earth on a particularly dusty day. It’s readily comparable to sunset scenes in our own lives. Suddenly, Mars isn’t a foreign, far-off world at all: it is a place with an imminence about it that challenges us to compare the scene to our own home in the Universe. Of course, the hope is that people recognize that our solar system has only one star, not two, and therefore recognize that the “Star Wars” image can’t possibly be real.
What can this teach us about the interplay between science and our society?
Some science writers breathe deep sighs at the prospect of having to explain away yet more digital fakery. But I argue that we actually need these images in our society. They offer teachable moments in which we can grab hold of the viewer’s sense of both imagination and experience, step in with the correct information, and lead the way to the science. Then discovery can take over, lighting the fire of further curiosity and evaluation — and more discovery.
Public understanding of astronomy, and of science in general, can benefit by using faked images as a way to calibrate people’s “hoax detectors”. Skepticism can exist comfortably alongside fantasy; our job as science enthusiasts is to reinforce the distinction between the two, as well as to promote the idea that the truths of science are often even stranger (and more exciting) than the best fiction.